Knox COVID-19 Cases Soar

Knox COVID-19 Cases Soar

The Health Department begs the public to take precautions as City Council moves against scofflaw drinking establishments.

by scott barker • November 18, 2020

COVID-19 is rampaging through Knox County, sickening and killing residents at a record pace. 

Knox County has seen 950 new COVID-19 cases in the past three days.

The surge in new cases prompted the Knox County Health Department to plead with the public to take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and played a part in Knoxville City Council’s vote Tuesday to enforce the county’s 11 p.m. alcohol sales curfew.

For the third straight day on Tuesday, Knox County shattered previous records for new coronavirus infections. The Health Department reported 373 new cases, putting the three-day total at 950. Eighty-six Knox Countians were hospitalized because of COVID-19, the most since the pandemic arrived in March.

Seven new fatalities were reported, the most in one day attributed to the pandemic, bringing the death toll to 138.

Health officials say the situation could get worse in the coming weeks. Rising case counts lead to rising hospitalizations, which result in more deaths. Case counts tend to rise in the wake of holidays, when people tend to let their guard down while celebrating with others, and Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are rapidly approaching. And flu season is here.

“If nothing about our behavior changes, these numbers will continue to climb at a high rate,” said Charity Menefee, the Health Department’s director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness.

A Plea for Action

On Tuesday, Menefee briefed the news media on the current situation. Typically, Health Department officials kick off their press conferences with a “moment of gratitude,” thanking first responders or business owners who are following guidelines or teachers and others who are doing their part to curb the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, however, Menefee dispensed with expressing gratitude and made a direct plea to the public to follow the five core actions that can slow the coronavirus’ spread — wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, washing hands, cleaning surfaces and staying home when sick.

“I know you’re tired of hearing it and I’m tired of saying it, but I’m coming to you today pleading to take these actions seriously,” she said.

The numbers are alarming. The 1,502 cases confirmed in the past seven days equal 8.8 percent of the total since the pandemic arrived eight months ago. Forty-three county residents have died in the past month.

Menefee showed a graph that demonstrates a surge in cases a week or so after a holiday — Independence Day, Labor Day and now Halloween. In the past few months, those spikes have been followed by a falloff in cases, but that’s not a likely scenario between now and January, she said.

“What’s different about this time of year is we have several holidays in a very short time frame,” Menefee said. “There’s not going to be time for the cases to come back down by the time we have our next holiday.”

She suggested limiting holiday gatherings to immediate household members only, to reduce the likelihood of spreading the coronavirus.

That’s especially important for older family members. Seniors are the most vulnerable portion of the population — people age 65 or older have accounted for 110 of Knox County’s 138 fatalities from COVID-19 complications.

Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are places of particular concern. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 25 Knox County long-term care facilities have seen outbreaks that have resulted in dozens of illnesses and the deaths of 17 residents. 

Menefee wouldn’t comment on particular facilities, but said the Health Department continues to work with operators who are experiencing outbreaks.

At NHC Healthcare Farragut, 28 of 82 residents have contracted COVID-19, and six have died. Of the 38 residents of Arbor Terrace of Knoxville who tested positive, four have died, according to the state’s reckoning.

But young adults are driving the community spread of the coronavirus. More than 11,000 cases in Knox County have involved people 44 years of age or younger. 

While recent news that two potential vaccines show promising results offer hope, trials aren’t complete and most health officials say the vaccines won’t be widely available until spring at the earliest. 

“I’m kind of at a loss for what more we can say at this point,” Menefee said. “We have the five core actions. Those are the tools in our tool box. There aren’t any others right now.”

Enforcing the Curfew

Meanwhile, City Council approved two measures that clarify the city’s authority to enforce the county’s 11 p.m. alcohol sales curfew through its beer sales regulations.

A growing number of establishments have been flouting the Knox County Board of Health’s mandate that bars and restaurants that serve alcohol close at 11 p.m. daily, authorities have said. Knoxville Police Chief Eve Thomas said 37 of 58 establishments her officers checked over the weekend were out of compliance. There are 1,188 permitted bars and restaurants inside the city limits. 

Violations of public health orders are misdemeanors under state law, but local law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to pursue criminal charges, preferring to educate proprietors instead.

The two ordinances Council approved on Tuesday clarify that public health orders have the force of law, and that the city could use its authority to suspend or revoke the beer licenses of violators.

Law Director Charles Swanson noted that it’s a privilege to hold a beer permit and that one of the stipulations is following the law. “The law includes the Board of Health regulations,” he said.

Mayor Indya Kincannon and Council members Lynne Fugate and Lauren Rider framed the effort as a way to level the playing field for those who abide by the Board of Health’s order. Violators, they argued, have a leg up on those who follow the rules.

“It gives them an unfair competitive advantage,” Fugate said.

Councilwoman Janet Testerman wasn’t convinced, however. She said she was sympathetic toward businesses already reeling from the effects of the pandemic and questioned whether the science justified the 11 p.m. closing time.

“I don’t trivialize this virus. It’s real,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s going to mitigate the problem.”

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Health Department, countered that reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that restaurants and bars are places where transmissions occur. She voiced support for the city’s action. “Our case counts are rising, our deaths are going up, our hospitalizations are going up, so there’s some urgency to do something,” she said.

Council wound up passing both ordinances by identical 8-1 votes, with Testerman the lone dissenter.

Thomas said officers would notify establishments of the policy in writing, beginning today. According to Swanson, only repeat offenders would be cited and ordered to appear before a Beer Board hearing officer for a revocation or suspension hearing.

Beer Board hearing officers, who are practicing attorneys, can determine whether to suspend or revoke beer permits. Fines of up to $1,000 for each violation are also possible, and those who have permits revoked can’t receive another one for 10 years. Beer Board attorney Rob Frost said many cases wind up being settled before a permit is revoked. 

Thomas said the goal is not punishment, however, but compliance. Kincannon agreed.

“There’s only one enemy in our community right now, and that’s COVID-19,” she said. “We need to have a united front.”